Music exams - some teachers love them others won’t touch them, but what might some alternatives be? Let’s have a look at not only the pros and cons of music exams, but also consider some other options.
Music exams are regarded by many teachers, parents and students as essential. Many teachers of my “older” generation grew up with music exams as part and parcel of learning an instrument. I don’t recall this being any problem in primary school, but I do remember being very nervous for the exams I took in high school, and even more so for university auditions. As a teacher I have entered many students for exams in the past, mainly where it was a requirement of the school, but now I am enjoying teaching “exam free”. So, what are some of the pros and cons of music exams, and what might some of the alternatives to music exams be?
Recognition: Exams give students widely recognized credentials; they may give students entry to higher education in music, or credits for high school.
Achievement: Receiving an exam certificate gives students a sense of accomplishment.
Motivation: Exams provide a goal to work towards, and a deadline by which the work must be completed. For students who like doing exams and do well, an exam provides a positive experience, and the student is encouraged to go on to the next grade.
Structure: Exams can provide a scaffold for lessons in terms of the material to be prepared for the exam, not only for repertoire, but also for technical work, aural and sight reading.
Opportunity: Exams provide an opportunity for students to perform under pressure, similar to a recital. The more often students do this, the more they learn about how to manage nervousness, a useful skill not only in music but in other areas of our lives. Note I say “manage”, not “overcome” nervousness, as most players including professionals, have some degree of nerves before a performance.
Impartial feedback: Examiners critique the performance, both the positive and negative aspects. A good examiner will give constructive suggestions for improvement and mention the student’s strengths as well as weaknesses. It can be helpful for both student and teacher to have an outside opinion of how the student is progressing.
Narrow focus: Focusing on exams only may limit the overall musical skills our students need. Often there is not enough time in lessons to cover all we would like to, and the time required to prepare an exam program may mean there is not time for teaching other skills such as improvisation, composition, or playing by ear.
Stress: The pressure of exams may curtail the student’s enjoyment of the music. If they are forced to do an exam, the associated stress may even cause them to give up music lessons.
Repertoire: Limitation of repertoire to the exam syllabus can be a problem, although many exam boards now offer some own choice of music, and most teachers give additional repertoire to the exam music. Depending on the scheduling of the exam, students may end up playing the same pieces for a very long time in preparation and lose interest in the music.
Fast tracking: Some parents can become very focused on their children getting through the grades as fast as possible, resulting in rushing through levels rather than fully exploring the skills and repertoire for each level, and music becomes just a competition.
Cost: Exams can be very expensive, especially at the higher levels.
Bad experience: if a student does not perform well on the day or has a “difficult” experience with the examiner, the exam may leave them with a negative attitude towards their playing. An exam is only a reflection of how the student performed on that one occasion, not of their overall ability.
Recital: This is a performance opportunity many teachers use, from small, informal party-recitals to formal recitals with presentation of awards. The student also benefits from the positive feedback of the audience applause, and as this is usually made up of supportive parents and students, it can be a great confidence booster!
Competition: Playing in a competition also provides an excellent goal and performance opportunity, and is another way to receive impartial feedback. Students need to be able to cope with not winning (if they do win, that’s a bonus!) and to understand that the adjudicator may have a different opinion from them about who should win the prizes!
Masterclass: These are a wonderful opportunity for students to receive feedback from another teacher, sometimes from a well-known performer who is visiting the area. Master classes are especially helpful for more advanced students and give them a chance not only to perform, but also to hear other students play.
Challenge Certificates: Students elect to do a 20-100 Piece Challenge, and when each piece has been learned and played to a satisfactory standard (according to the teacher), it is entered onto the list. When the student completes the list, they are awarded a Challenge Certificate. My students love these challenges, and it encourages plenty of practice as they are keen to get more pieces on their list. Not only do students enjoy earning the different Challenge Certificates (I offer 20, 30, 50 and 100 piece challenges) they are also building their repertoire and have the opportunity to prepare a wide range of music. An alternative which also motivates practice is a scales challenge, either for your whole studio or for an individual student.
Summer School: Many music school and studios offer Summer School programs. This can be a fun way for students to perform with others, usually in a more relaxed atmosphere. There are often extra music activities on offer, ensemble groups and many have guest teachers, enabling students to get another opinion about their playing.
Mock exams: I have done this a number of times and found mock exams very successful. Basically, I am the examiner for the flute students of one of my colleagues, then she is the examiner for my flute students. It is much less formal than a registered exam, and we have considerable flexibility. For example, if a student isn’t quite ready for the next grade we let them do Grade 2.5, rather than struggling with Grade 3. We decide our own technical requirements and repertoire to suit the individual students. Each student receives a detailed written report, with comments on each piece and their technical work and an overall grading. Whilst this obviously isn’t an officially recognized exam, it can be a great alternative and gives the teacher and student feedback from a respected colleague.
My thoughts …
Recently, the availability of online exams has increased flexibility in scheduling exams, allowing students to sit when they are ready, rather than preparing material for an extended period of time. Some students may find it less pressure to record their pieces at home or in their teacher’s studio, rather than playing live in front of an examiner. This can be particularly reassuring for students who have a digital piano and then need to adjust to an acoustic piano at the exam venue.
Exams work really well for some students and can be disastrous for others. As teachers we are in a position to decide whether exams form part of our regular program for all our students, for some of our students, or if we prefer to only use exams occasionally or not at all. Looking at the individual student’s needs is the key here. If we carefully consider the interests, personality, strengths and long-term music goals of each of our students, they will have a fulfilling learning experience, with or without music exams.
Personally, I love the freedom of teaching without exams, especially in the early years of playing. Music is creative, and it’s exciting to be able to explore lots of different areas with the student and to follow their individual interests. I have a planned program for each student and cover the technical requirements and repertoire for the grade, but this is flexible and can be adjusted as needed. Without the pressure of preparing for a formal exam, I have the opportunity to spend more time on areas needing attention, for example, one student needs a lot of extra work every lesson in rhythm reading, another needs extra time on her flute tonguing.
I also have the time to integrate games throughout my lessons, both to introduce and reinforce essential concepts, a most enjoyable approach for both student and teacher. I use games extensively as I find students learn more quickly and more thoroughly when they are really engaged and having fun.
I still encourage my students to enter eisteddfods or competitions if they want to, or to attend master classes if available, and sometimes we’ll have optional mock exams. My students are very enthusiastic about Challenge Certificates, and most are trying to earn each of the four different certificates I offer. Sometimes we might do a scales challenge, and with all of my students I do some basic composition activities; this is not only fun but also gives them an understanding of how music is constructed. We look at patterns in their pieces and I relate their scales and studies to the main works they are learning. We have plenty of goals to work towards yet the freedom to spend more time where needed.
My final advice … do whatever works best for you and each of your students, whether this be exams, no exams, or some of the many other options available.
Karen North has been teaching flute and class music for over 35 years. She is the author of the popular method series "The Young Flute Player" and has commissioned many new works for intermediate flute repertoire in "Lyrical Flute Legends" and "Inspiring Flute Solos." Karen has written a book "Fun & Games for Music Lessons", and is currently working with specialist consultants on repertoire books for Violin, Clarinet and Saxophone.